When books are written about American film in early 21st century, surely one of the more intriguing footnotes of what impact the Mumblecore movement had was the direct one that it had on Noah Baumbach, who brought name actors (Jane Adams, Josh Hamilton) onto Joe Swanberg’s “Alexander the Last” in his capacity as an executive producer and took Greta Gerwig, Swanberg’s leading lady of the mid 2000s, into the big time with “Greenberg.”
That film, starring Ben Stiller as an aggrieved former rocker in Los Angeles, had all the trappings of the path Baumbach seemed ordained for following his rebirth with “The Squid and the Whale,” chronicling the miseries of growing past the 20s he enshrined with “Kicking and Screaming” where anxieties could be cute to show the ugliness when they become ingrained. Gerwig, as the title character’s lady in waiting, shined brightest, even in the sun-soaked photography of the late Harris Savides’ lens, and so it is no surprise that she has been elevated to the lead in Baumbach’s latest “Frances Ha” as well as a co-screenwriter, the effect of which appears to make Baumbach feel young again.
Appearing fast and cheap, albeit scored with bursts of Truffaut’s go-to-composer Georges Delerue and tracks from David Bowie that debunk the latter observation, “Frances Ha” follows its gamine title character stumble through her late twenties, sometimes gracefully, sometimes not, as she tries to carve out a foundation for herself as a ballet dancer in New York. That proves no easy task, as simply conveyed by the film’s demarcations of every place Frances takes up residence in the span of its hour-and-a-half running time.
There’s a quiet dignity to Frances, who never once pines for a significant other and refuses to accept defeat at the hands of the big city but doesn’t seem ignorant or naïve about trying to find her place in it. While there’s never any real danger that she’ll actually wind up on the streets – an employment setback even comes with the offer of a job, albeit a less creative one – the film feeds off the exuberance of not knowing where exactly she’ll end up, with Gerwig playing the part with just enough wistful discontent to give some edge to the character’s more flighty, frivolous tendencies.
All of it is portrayed with an exacting eye, Baumbach never allowing any scene to linger beyond its narrative usefulness, Sam Lisenco’s spare production design often saying more than the characters deign to speak and Sam Levy’s camerawork sharp and direct in a way Frances simply can’t be. Although Gerwig is surrounded by actors who are able to add a little flavor to their scenes without taking the spotlight away from the star, particularly Michael Zegen who stands out as Benji, one of Frances’ numerous roommates whose privilege may afford him a comfortable life Frances envies but hasn’t bought him happiness, the relationships to other characters are less well-drawn. Partially this is surely by design as Frances can rarely escape her own head, but in her closest friendship with Sophie (Mickey Sumner) whose steady boyfriend and stable job act as a yardstick by which her own accomplishments are judged, the film feels slightly undernourished though Sumner and Gerwig’s chemistry is strong.
It’s ironic that the film has already drawn superficial comparisons to everything from Lena Dunham’s “Girls” to Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” when it’s Baumbach’s most wholly original film to date, one that could only be made after mastering his craft. When Frances jokingly acknowledges over dinner with a new roommate (Adam Driver), “I’m not really a complete person yet,” after forgetting to bring dollars to a cash-only restaurant in one expertly executed scene, Baumbach can’t say the same as a filmmaker. With Gerwig, perhaps he’s found the missing piece.
“Frances Ha” opens at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center in New York and the Landmark and the Arclight Los Angeles on May 17th before expanding wider on May 24th.